Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional comment.
The most visible public universities in Texas are moving toward reopening their campuses in the fall — and two say they plan to play football when they do.
On Thursday, Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp told all 11 university presidents in the system that they will reopen their campuses next school year and be ready to play sports, a university system official confirmed to The Texas Tribune. Texas Tech University has also announced that it plans to resume on-campus classes in the fall, and university President Lawrence Schovanec told the Tribune that Tech is planning to play sports, too, though it's unlikely either school will be able to bring back sports like football on its own.
Meanwhile, University of Texas System Chancellor James B. Milliken told the Tribune during a live event Thursday that "it's pretty clear we will be open in the fall."
"Not entirely like last fall, but not like this spring, either," he said.
Unlike his counterpart at A&M, Milliken didn't make a declaration about football.
"Sports are maybe the only thing above the chancellor's pay grade," he said.
All Texas universities are closed for in-person classes due to the threat of the new coronavirus. Gov. Greg Abbott has ordered schools closed through the spring semester. Many Texas colleges and universities were on spring break when spread of the new coronavirus began disrupting higher education. Although some students returned briefly after break, campuses were ultimately shut down and classes moved online in mid-March.
Baylor University and Texas Woman's University have already announced that they will resume on-campus classes in the fall. [Update: The Texas State University System said Friday that it, too, will resume on-campus classes in the fall.]
In an interview with The Texas Tribune on Thursday evening, Abbott said he is talking with the university systems "at multiple levels" and spoke Wednesday with Sharp. They did not speak in detail about reopening, but it did come up, Abbott said.
"More importantly, this is being conducted more broadly with the Higher Education Coordinating Board," Abbott said. "We know this is important to begin to start reaching some level of preparation. You can't decide Aug. 1, 'Oh, let's go back to school,' and do it. You have to begin planning now."
Abbott said the state's decisions on reopening schools should be guided by health data like everything else.
"Let's say the medical information remains or improves from where we are today — they are taking the appropriate steps to begin the process toward reopening," Abbott said. But if conditions take a turn for the worse, Abbott added, schools should be prepared to deal with that as well.
"As the facts change, plans will change," Abbott said.
The shutdowns have cost schools millions in lost revenue, at least $19.5 million for A&M, a spokesperson told the Tribune two weeks ago. The federal stimulus programs gave A&M just under $40 million to be split between covering losses and financial aid for students.
Texas Tech received about $25.5 million in federal aid. Students at the Lubbock campus will return to classes with a list of precautions including social distancing and testing, Schovanec said in a letter to the campus Wednesday.
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"We need to recognize that campus life will be different when we return in the fall," Schovanec said. "We are developing several ways to reduce the density of groups in our student facilities, large lecture-based classrooms, and our popular campus areas. These same plans extend to special events, including athletics.
"Strategies for fall instruction will involve a blend of online and face-to-face classes for some students. We will also take extra precautions to protect the most vulnerable among us."
In an interview, Schovanec said he is working with his staff as well as the leaders of the medical schools in the Texas Tech System to come up with a plan. He said the group is considering nontraditional class schedules like mini-semesters within the larger ones and staggering class dismissals.
“One of the advantages to that approach is that students and faculty would have more flexibility in deciding when they will be on campus and when they feel safe,” Schovanec said.
He also said testing and retracing the steps of anyone exposed to the coronavirus will be integral to a safe reopening. However, Schovanec said it is too early to know what the scope of testing will be.
University policies have garnered considerable attention in the response to the coronavirus pandemic since the close quarters of dorms and student apartments could potentially accelerate the spread of the virus. But moving to online learning also presents challenges, especially for students who don't have stable housing or internet outside of school.
Football presents an even more complex challenge. Games in the fall in Texas can attract upwards of 100,000 fans, and ticket sales and television contracts are major revenue drivers for the schools.
Typically, A&M’s football season brings in $85 million in revenue, including donations and ticket sales. But Jeff Toole, chief financial officer for athletics, said the school is operating under the assumption that game attendance will drop, though early ticket sales have remained fairly steady so far.
“The social distancing in a 100,000-seat stadium ... that could be challenging,” A&M Athletics Director Ross Bjork said.
Still, things could change between now and football season. Abbott announced this week that the Texas economy would begin opening in phases starting Friday, but if the state sees a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases after two weeks, that decision could be reversed. And experts have warned that even if the spread begins to slow in the summer, the coronavirus could see a resurgence as temperatures drop in the fall and winter.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is leading the White House's public health response to the coronavirus pandemic, said this week that major sports might not be able to return to action this year.
College football schedules are set in a bifurcated manner. Each team plays in a conference, which sets a conference schedule of eight or nine games. Nonconference games are then arranged by the schools; usually two schools enter into contracts individually with other schools.
Sharp wants to "make this happen," according to an A&M spokesman, but said he will defer to the governor, the A&M System Board of Regents, the NCAA and A&M's Southeastern Conference for the final decision.
SEC spokesman Herb Vincent said, "Our current focus is on preparing to play the 2020 football season as scheduled."
Schovanec also acknowledged that other parties would have to sign off on playing football. But he also said sports are important beyond their entertainment value.
“Being able to play some part of the football schedule is crucial to our athletic budget," Schovanec said. "We are very focused on trying to make sure that we can come to some sort of arrangement where there will be football.”
However, Schovanec said the fall season could come with a range of nontraditional changes like fewer games and earlier starts. He said packed stadiums are the least likely to return.
“I don’t expect that. However, I think it’s premature to make any statement about what will be the game-day environment," Schovanec said. "We’re all worried about a second surge, and I think what actually happens in stadiums will depend on the guidelines of the state and the local government.”
Patrick Svitek contributed reporting.
Disclosure: The Texas A&M System, Texas Tech University, the University of Texas System and Baylor University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.